For the price of two cows that he took to a local abattoir and got made into hamburger, Langruth rancher Kerry Arksey got a lot of ink – and an audience with the provincial agriculture minister.
After his quiet, one-man protest at the Manitoba legislature Jan. 26, where he handed out free beef in exchange for donations to the Manitoba Farm and Rural Stress Line, he was interviewed by reporters from local papers and radio, made the evening TV news report, and even merited a story in the Globe and Mail, which is published from coast to coast.
His message? Government bungling of assistance programs and neglect of the cattle industry must stop before more farmers like him are forced to exit the industry.
That, and his grief for the loss of his nephew, Master Corporal Tim Wilson, who ended up being the 10th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan. Arksey recalled how he had advised him shortly after BSE hit in May 2003 to stay in the army because the prospects for the young soldier joining him on the farm looked too dim.
“He was a farmer who wanted to go farming and he didn’t get to do it,” said Arksey.
“How many kids do you think there have been across Western Canada who would have liked to have stayed farming, but either their parents have ran up so much debt that they can’t afford it, or they ended up in a dispersal sale like mine.”
It still irks Arksey that in coverage of a meeting in St. Claude a few years back, a reporter from the Manitoba Co-operator described him as a “troubled farmer” after he stood up and asked how much BSE had cost cattle producers.
That was just a year after BSE hit, he noted. Since then, things have steadily worsened.
“I didn’t like being called ‘troubled’ then, because I didn’t think the reporter knew me,” said Arksey, 55, in an interview later in the week. “But I’ll tell you one thing, I’m a lot more troubled now.”
Since then, the fourth-generation farmer has burned through $140,000 in cash, still has an outstanding BSE loan, and has lost another $200,000 in equity on the ranch.
This winter, he threw in the towel and sold off his herd of 150 cows. He’s renting out most of his land, and this summer he will watch as 800 acres of pasture are torn up and sown to grain. Even with everything on the farm paid off and his 84-year-old father working for him for free, Arksey still couldn’t turn a profit in the cattle business.
He described his meeting with the agriculture minister as amicable, and claimed that he even drew a chuckle from Stan Struthers when he quoted his father: “Cows may come and cows may go, but the B. S. around here just goes on and on.”
“I told Mr. Struthers: I consider myself very lucky. When BSE hit, I didn’t owe a cent.”
The reason farms like his have failed, he said, is because the government has adopted a “cheap food policy.”
The implication of that is, he said, that the globalized marketplace forces farmers all over the world to compete against each other to provide the non-farming public with the cheapest food possible.
“If you just figured that one out – well, duh!” he said. “I made some money back at $1.25 a pound. But even if you doubled the price right now, I defy you to make a living on a 150 cows.”
He acknowledged that some ranchers might accuse him of being a “crybaby” for taking his story public.
“Maybe I am whining,” he said. But he added he doesn’t care. “I’ve slept probably better since I sold my cattle on Jan. 15 than I have for a long time.” [email protected]